Thanks to The Literary Saloon, I came across a fabulous article by Jonathan Coe in The Guardian called “My Literary Love Affair,” about how he discovered Virago Modern Classics. The article is fabulous for a couple of reasons: because it’s got information on the history of the series and because Coe’s story of encountering these books is a good one. He describes coming across the series in a bookstore in 1982 and being intrigued by the phrase “modern classics” connected with names he hadn’t ever heard of before — May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, Rosamond Lehmann. He says that calling these books by largely forgotten women authors “modern classics” was a powerful political statement at a time when the term “classic” meant a little more than it does today.
So, he reads some of these books and finds himself and his writing changed. This is what he says about the experience:
Before long, the Virago novels would unseat some of my deepest assumptions as a reader, and also alter my course as a writer. It was under their influence, in my mid-20s, that I abandoned straightforward autobiographical writing and chose a female protagonist for my first published novel, The Accidental Woman; while my latest, The Rain Before it Falls, is intended (among other things) as an hommage to the whole list and the authors which it reintroduced.
He talks a lot about Dorothy Richardson’s long, Proustian-like novel Pilgrimage (Pointed Roofs is the first part). Pilgrimage was considered hugely important in its day, but around the time of World War II fell out of favor and has never returned. Coe describes how Richardson experiments with style, trying to produce what she termed “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.”
He also describes May Sinclair’s work and says of Rosamond Lehmann that he has had a decades long literary love affair with her writing. Lehmann is an interesting case study in how women writers get marginalized for taking up supposedly “female” subjects; one male reviewer wrote of The Echoing Grove that “so prolonged a voyage in an exclusively emotional and sexual sea afflicts a male reader at least with a sense of surfeit” and another that “entirely, exquisitely feminine readers, trousered or otherwise, will probably receive the book with rapture.” Coe points out that Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, published at the same time and with a similar tone and theme, did not receive the same treatment.
Coe argues that the Virago series was and still is important in countering critical bias against women writers, but that work still needs to be done, and he points to the relatively few women who make the Booker prize shortlists as evidence. But he does recognize that attitudes are changing, and he makes his point with this intriguing argument:
But there is a sense that the crude gender bias in British literary culture which Virago challenged so effectively in the 1970s and 80s no longer exists. Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women: Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Marina Lewycka, Sarah Waters and Susanna Clarke, among others. And these writers are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels, not voyaging in “an exclusively emotional and sexual sea” – a phrase that might rather be applied (accurately, but non-pejoratively) to a novel like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female writing no longer stand up to scrutiny.
Interesting, isn’t it? Reading about how important these women writers were for Coe made me quite happy, and I realized that I responded so positively because I don’t often hear male writers saying such things. Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but doesn’t it seem to be the case that it’s rare for male writers to acknowledge the importance of a specifically female tradition of writing for their own work? Coe isn’t merely pointing out one or two important female influences; he’s pointing to a tradition, and it’s one that taught him to write in ways the male writers he was already familiar with hadn’t.
Has anyone read Coe? I liked this article enough I’m curious about his own fiction.